The CMO must ‘be happy asking the dumb questions’

A CMO can come from any background but must assimilate new ideas quickly while adapting to corporate pressures, according to a panel of senior marketers at the Festival of Marketing.

CMO questionsThe skills and attributes required of a chief marketing officer are many and varied, with a plethora of possible career routes, but among the unifiying characteristics are a breadth of experience coupled with adaptability and a willingness to experiment with new concepts, according to senior marketers speaking at the Festival of Marketing today (4 October).

“You have to be happy asking the dumb questions,” said Philip Almond, director of marketing and audiences at the BBC, speaking on a panel that also included Virgin Atlantic’s senior vice-president of marketing Claire Cronin and Tata Communications chief marketing and innovation officer Julie Woods-Moss.

The academic and professional credentials of CMOs differ dramatically, as evidenced by the panellists’ backgrounds in English, law and engineering respectively, but Almond emphasised the importance of a career path covering a wide range of competencies.

READ MORE: Is CMO succession in crisis?

“People come in as specialists but pick up a variety of marketing experience. That’s what it takes to be a CMO,” he said.

CMOs must also “be very adaptable”, Cronin added

Need for a growth mindset

Woods-Moss said her most sought-after characteristic in marketers today is the ability to respond to setbacks such as budget pressures by demonstrating how marketing drives revenue.

You don’t do much marketing as CMO. All the fun happens further down.

Philip Almond, BBC

“One thing I look for is a growth mindset. Can they turn a negative into a positive?” That must go alongside a “passion for new digital technologies”, which is expected as a given, she said, adding: “The more senior you are, the more time you should invest in understanding these technologies.”

Almond echoed this sentiment by claiming that, thanks to the speed of technological change, “strategy is now in the experimentation”. While he believes it is still important to focus efforts so you are not “throwing stuff at the wall”, he said “you have to try stuff” to have a hope of keeping up with consumer attitudes and behaviour.

READ MORE: Anatomy of a Leader: The key skills marketers must possess

Cronin said the CMO now has three distinct but equal traits – they must be a “brand magician”, a “commercialisation wizard” and a “customer obsessive”.

Cost awareness key to credibility

Corporate pressures inevitably mean that a CMO will always have to account for their spending to others in their organisations. “In order to be credible, you have to say ‘we are looking at our cost base’,” Cronin advised.

This doesn’t have to be at the expense of marketing reach or effectiveness, however. Almond revealed that after in-housing all the services previously outsourced to agencies, the BBC now creates 50% more marketing assets than it did two years ago while reducing its overall costs.

Ideally, though, businesses should be willing to “put all the dollars on the table” in the pursuit of growth goals, Woods-Moss argued, rather than focusing solely on the marketing budget, which “tends to be what you can afford, not what’s required for the outcome”.

The reality of whether that happens may depend upon the individual organisation. Likewise businesses have varying degrees of respect for CMOs – both in terms of the time it takes to achieve results and the balance of power they hold relative to other corporate functions.

Almond criticised companies that are quick to fire CMOs for short-term performance reasons, but acknowledged that when it comes to reorganisations that favour other departments, marketers need to be aware of the difficult choices boards must make in rapidly changing markets.

“That’s both highly political and there are heightened expectations,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘the board has got this wrong’.”

He also warned younger marketers to expect much less hands-on work with campaigns and creative when they reach the top job: “You don’t do much marketing as CMO. All the fun happens further down.”

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